Water: The Lifeblood of Healthy, Productive Communities — An Interview with Bill Asche

Published November 1, 2000

Properly drilled and finished drinking water wells bring the most important health benefit that villages can receive. With improved health, people are happier, work harder, and improve the communities where they live. This reduces crime and welfare and produces friendly and loving relationships between our peoples and nations.

For two decades, William Arthur Ashe has been on a mission: to bring safe drinking water supplies and training to the world’s poorest. It is a mission born not only of his Christian faith, but also the family business: Shaw Pump & Supply Inc., for which he began working in 1951 at the age of 20.

Ashe “lives and breathes” water. He has invented a wide range of water-related devices, including sprinkler irrigation devices, water well monitoring pumps, and submersible pump motors. He holds several patents on his inventions. He is a life member of the National Water Well Association, member of the California Groundwater Association, and executive director of Pipe Association Global (www.pag.org). He teaches seminars in fluid system dynamics and conducts water well drilling training camps.

As a team leader for Lifewater International projects, Ashe has supervised volunteers on Navajo reservations in Arizona and in more than a dozen countries, including the Dominican Republic, Kenya, Morocco, Romania, Russia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. He has addressed audiences at William Carey University on international development; Biola University on cross-cultural relations; and the National Water Well Association on water issues in third-world countries.

An active member of Foothill Community Church, Ashe has served in the past five terms as deacon, four terms as missions chairman, and two terms as a college class teacher. He has spoken of his work at Lifewater before church audiences across the United States.

Ashe and his wife Lorraine, married since 1952, have nurtured four children and fourteen grandchildren from their home in California. Ashe recently spoke with Environment & Climate News‘ Managing Editor Jay Lehr.

Lehr: What is Lifewater International?

Ashe: We are a team of water resource management specialists volunteering our time, resources, and skills to help train people in disadvantaged countries to develop safe drinking water supplies.

Lehr: How do you do that?

Ashe: By providing equipment and training, we help these people learn how to construct village water wells serving 400 to 600 people at the handpumps. A business plan is developed to help them become independent.

Lehr: How did it get started?

Ashe: In my travels to our dealers in Mexico with my family business, Shaw Pump and Supply. There I observed poor people drinking from contaminated water supplies. Many did not understand the relationship between being sick and bad water. Most could not afford protecting their sources or a properly constructed well to change this environmental problem.

The big discrepancy between the Haves with all the best systems in the world and the Have-nots in this predicament was a challenge to my Christian faith to change. I enlisted a few volunteers from our industry and we developed a strategy that would be the most time- and cost-effective. Now we have over 100 volunteers serving on 35+ projects a year.

Lehr: What are the best results of Lifewater projects?

Ashe: Safe village drinking water wells. These properly drilled and finished wells bring the most important health benefit that villages can receive. With improved health, people are happier, work harder, and improve the communities where they live. This reduces crime and welfare and produces friendly and loving relationships between our peoples and nations. We now include training in sanitation and nutrition.

Lehr: How many wells and crews have you trained to date?

Ashe: In our first 18 years we completed 1,000 wells and trained 24 active crews. In the last two years they are up to 2,000 wells and we have trained six more active crews (not all crews or areas have been fully successful).

We are making a difference for a few villages. I say a few because 1.2 billion people are in need of our designs and services.

Lehr: How do Lifewater projects improve the environment?

Ashe: In these areas most drinking water wells are open to the surface. Vandals, animals, kids, ropes, and buckets often contaminate the water, which in turn is contaminating the aquifer. Cased bore holes and surface handpumps eliminate this problem. We train the national crews to properly complete the drilling process and casing so the wells are constructed with good practices.

Lehr: How much do they cost?

Ashe: Between $500 and $3000 each, depending on where they are, how deep to water, the cost of materials and labor in that country, etc. The machine we use is the Lone Star LS100 at $5,500, which weighs about 900 pounds, ships in a box 2′ x 3′ x 9′ air freight anywhere in the world for $3/pound. The amortization of the rig and mud pump is about $250 per well. Since this is a teaching tool, mistakes cost less and the risk of bodily harm is small. They get into the business at reduced costs but still produce a product in the process.

The Bush hand pumps we train them to make are $180, when the commercial ones go for three to four times this amount. We also help them to make their own well cylinders at $150, when commercial well cylinders are $300.

These wells provide safe drinking water at $4 to $5 per person, a value unequaled in this industry.

Lehr: What difficulties have your teams faced with regard to the fact that they are working with very different cultures?

Ashe: There are several, but the most difficult for us westerners to understand are these:

First, the mindset of the tribal peoples. They want their Chief to have everything he wants. If it isn’t worship, it’s very close to it. They are willing to hand him their shirt right through his Mercedes window as he passes by. We can’t understand why many of these people don’t seem to notice, care, or rebel when their presidents seem to be robbing them blind. Many of these guys are very rich with money that should have been spent helping their poor with basic human needs.

The second is the mindset of the subsistence farmer, the family that must grow the food they eat. If their crop fails they don’t eat unless they receive charity from another family member or friends of some kind. When we try to introduce drip irrigation to these people, even though it is proven to increase their yield by two or three times, they are very reluctant tp take the risk. That’s why it takes so long to help them. We must install a test plot within their village and prove it over a growing period before some will venture to try it on their own farm.

The third is the practice of family possessions in common. When good intentioned NGOs (non-government organizations) have set up someone in business with pot and pans, on opening day every relative comes to the shop and picks what he wants of this shiny new inventory. They say “thank you very much” and do not pay because what is yours is mine and vise-versa. They are out of business on the second day. In our field it means “drill my well next” which the crew is hard-pressed not to do.

Lehr: Do you have problems related to the kind of drinking water they are used to?

Ashe: Some villagers don’t want to drill wells to get ground water because that is where they bury their dead. Some don’t like the taste of that clear plain water: It’s not like the “good” green river taste.

Lehr: Lifewater is obviously addressing life-threatening problems for the communities it works with. How do you reconcile your work with the time and money that is spent chasing very small or unproven environmental and health risks?

Ashe: It’s the squeaky wheel principle. In the U.S. we spend $500 to $10,000 per person on a community water system to avoid a 1-in-10,000 risk of cancer. The poorest of the poor have very few advocates. They must drink bad water when $5 per person would bring them safe water to drink.

The problem is astronomical. In 20 years we have reached 5.6 percent of our target “easiest ones first” project areas. There is room for another 20 “Lifewaters” to make some impact on this problem in the next 20 years, just doing the easiest ones.

Lehr: What could our readers do to help you?

Ashe: We are an IRS tax-exempt organization. Cash gifts are the most helpful during this time of rapid growth. Water professionals are also welcome as volunteers, and we will send an application to anyone who inquires about becoming a volunteer.

Lehr: What are your goals for the next five years?

Ashe: To keep up with our expansion. Our five-year plan, revised this year, plots a desire to have in place by 2004, 300 volunteers serving five overseas national centers, each supervising four to eight countries, for a total of 40 to 50 new projects per year and sustaining 300 mature teams. These “Lifewater Centers” are places where local authorities may obtain our data on groundwater, new wells, and repairs. The Centers will also accommodate local Lifewater crews with advanced training and a repairs warehouse.

Lehr: What assistance have you had from either our government or foreign governments?

Ashe: Very little. Too much red tape with our government. From overseas governments, we try to get import “duty-free” agreements. Very few governments respond with a letter asking their customs people to help us. The best we hope for is “approval” of our projects. Too many are still fearful of insurrection. They give us a hard time for bringing in computers and won’t let satellite cell phones or FM radios in at all.

Lehr: How are your projects funded?

Ashe: Projects are funded 60 to 90 percent from our funds and 10 to 40 percent from the project recipients. Even the poorest of the poor can always come up with something, and we make that a requirement so they take ownership of the project.

Our projects are usually a five-year commitment and cost $20,000 to $50,000. This includes one drill rig with plenty of spares, training over a two-year span, and the following three years of subsidized wells. When they complete a well and send us a picture and well log, we send them our share of money for the next well, usually about 60 percent of the cost.

Many crews get started in business during the first two or three years and don’t need our help as much. We try to help them get a business plan together. It’s hard to teach putting money aside for repairs that haven’t happened yet. Many have to learn the hard way, no money for repairs because they bought a new pick-up truck instead.

Lehr: Where does the money come from to do these projects?

Ashe: Over the years, two foundations have backed us up with a grant every year, The Stewardship Foundation and First Fruit, Inc. Their validation of our ministry has been instrumental in building our individual donor base, which is now about 1,000. Just this year, 10 new foundations gave us a first-time grant. Foundations have been about 1/3 of our yearly budget, another 1/3 comes from these 1,000 individuals, and the balance comes from churches, our staff, our board, and civic groups.

Lehr: What is in the financial future for Lifewater?

Ashe: We are growing very rapidly. In a few years we hope to be self-supporting with our Website, Envirolinks.com. This site is buyer-driven, banner-supported, and supplier-responsive. Buyers and sellers are linked by an email quote system. As we serve our industry with this modern communication media, the income from advertising will support many of our projects. Both buyers and sellers are receiving a very valuable service and know that they are helping to bring safe water to the poor of the developing world.

Lehr: How strong a role does Christianity play in your organization?

Ashe: Almost all of our volunteers are Christians. They come from a wide range of denominations. They give their time and dollars because they really believe in the “golden rule”: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

In most cases we leave the promotion of the Christian message to the nation church leaders we are assisting. They do a good job at the new wells. Villagers are curious about why we are there helping. This gives us a chance to tell them of our motivation to “learn to love one another” as our Lord told us to do. Our projects show that Christians around the world are genuine about their desire to help the poor with no strings attached.

For more information

or to become a Lifewater volunteer or donor, write Lifewater International, P.O. Box 3131, San Luis Obispo, CA 93403. Or call 888-LIFE-H2O (888-543-3426).